What would you do if you found out your teen is sexually active?
While sex is something that will eventually happen, some parents can’t handle the idea of their precious baby doing the deed and fly off the handle when they find out — going so far as to beat up their kid’s partner or chase them buck naked out of the house.
Apart from the act being very illegal, though, parents reacting to an adolescent’s sexual behavior this way can turn teens off to the idea of sex altogether, says Kelly Melistas, M.S., L.L.P., a child and adolescent psychologist with the Henry Ford Health System behavioral health integrated program pediatric office located in West Bloomfield at the time of interview.
And that’s why it’s important for parents to react with a cool head if they find out their kids are engaging in sexual behaviors or are having full-blown intercourse.
While studies show that kids are having less sex than generations past, it can be a little shocking to walk in on little Susie mid-coitus or find Billy’s stash of condoms.
So how can parents discuss dating and sex with their sexually active kids in a healthy way? Melistas offers some advice.
First, Melistas says it’s important to be proactive rather than reactive when discussing the topic of sex, and that parents should have age-appropriate talks about sex with their child as early as preschool – that continue into adolescence.
“(Conversations about) identifying private parts need to happen early on,” she says. “When you find out your kid is dating, I think it’s super important parents talk about what defines a healthy relationship … (and) what constitutes a healthy relationship, sex and different types of abuse that happen.”
She adds that parents should discuss the emotional consequences that come along with being sexually active – as well as pregnancy, the risks of STDs, when and where it is appropriate to have sex and the risks of sexting and social media.
It’s also important to be realistic when you’re having this conversation.
“It’s our job as parents to give them as much information as we can and to help guide them with these decisions. The reality is, once they walk out that door you can’t protect them from everything,” she says.
“Kids that have an open conversation about sex with their parents are more likely to use protection (and) are going to wait longer.”
Signs of sex
Ideally, Melistas says that kids shouldn’t date until they’re around 16, have experienced friendships, have a good sense of self and can stand up for what they believe in. But it varies based on the kid.
When parents allow their kids to start dating, they should watch out for changes in their child’s behavior for signs that it’s getting serious.
“One of the first things we hear from parents it their kids aren’t sleeping, they aren’t eating and they’re moodier,” she says. “Especially when kids are dating behind their parents’ backs, they start lying saying that they’re going to so and so’s house when they’re not.”
Changes in attitude, devoting all their time or becoming obsessed with one person and giving up previously loved activities are all warning signs, too.
“Sometimes the kids will totally change so that they’re not the same kids,” Melistas adds.
Dealing with the deed
If you do find out that your teen is sexually active, Melistas says it’s best to gather the facts and figure out what you need to do to help him or her.
“Ask if they are being safe and if they are using protection,” she says. “At this point, you already know that they’re doing it, so telling them not to do it isn’t going to help.”
Instead, drive home everything that comes along with the decision to have sex.
“If a parent has found out, the cat’s out of the bag – so they should be educating them on the consequences, explaining that you could be on birth control and could still get pregnant (and) the emotional connection and what arises from that,” she says.
And if you actually walk in on your kid in the act, breathe and don’t overreact.
“At that moment, again, I think it’s important to say, ‘OK we need to have a conversation,'” she explains. “Sex at some point is going to happen, (and) you don’t want to create a negative stigma about it.
“There needs to be consequences, but there needs to be a conversation about those consequences.” Melistas suggests taking away some freedom surrounding the relationship that the child used to enjoy.
“We’ve had (instances in which) the children are not allowed to do things by themselves anymore,” she explains.
If they were allowed to hang out alone in the house, maybe they aren’t allowed to do that anymore, and instead of driving themselves on dates, mom or dad drop them off or pick them up.
“Every situation is different,” she adds, “but the hope is that the conversations happen early enough.”
Include the partner’s parents
It takes two to tango, so when a teen is sexually active, it takes four (or however many parents/guardians are involved) to set the ground rules and safety measures – especially when the kids are in a relationship.
“It’s difficult, but obviously the child is not participating in the activity by themselves,” Melistas says. “One of the things that we’ve seen happen is the parents will talk to each other and come to a consensus of having the conversation together.”
This post was originally published in 2017 and is updated regularly.